Sure, the man's had a bad run of things. When Brian de Palma directed Snake Eyes, a corker of a plot that went nowhere, it seemed like a fluke. When he did Femme Fatale, that ludicrous sapphic French diamond heist flick, it could be written off as just an idiosyncratic minor joke by a former Hollywood heavyweight in self-imposed Euro-exile -- something to keep him occupied until he went back to the big leagues. Well, that moment of return finally arrived in the form of the long-gestating adaptation of James Ellroy's 1987 novel The Black Dahlia, a mystery about the infamous 1947 Elizabeth Short murder which seemed purpose-built for de Palma's needs. Ellroy's fever dream of a novel has everything that the famously self-referential director could utilize: doppelgangers (male and female), seedy urban underbelly, and psychosexual perversities galore. Given the limp, campy joke of a film that resulted, however, it seems time to stop making excuses for the man -- Brian de Palma has become one very bad director.
The generally limp script by Josh Friedman starts off smartly, setting us up for the bruising friendship between the stars, a couple of L.A. cops who also happen to be boxers and get paired up for a publicity-machine fight that touts them as "Mr. Fire and Mr. Ice." Ice is "Bucky" Bleichart (Josh Hartnett), a cool and low-key guy charitably described as a loser who gets his shot at a good chunk of change as well as reassignment to the LAPD's hotshot Warrants department for agreeing to the fight. Fire is Lee Blanchard (Aaron Eckhart), one of those bigger-than-life cops who cuts corners with aplomb and seems happy enough to bring Bucky on as his partner after knocking his teeth out (literally) in the ring. Further binding the two men together, besides work and friendship, is Kay Lake (Scarlett Johansson), the sultry blonde dame on Lee's arm who takes a shine to Bleichart that doesn't seem to be entirely platonic.
The murder of Elizabeth Short -- a horrific true-life case that was never solved, even after causing the largest manhunt in California history -- comes in after the film is already well underway, and it becomes the thing that will expose the corruption already hinted at in practically every scene up to that point. Unfortunately, it also marks the point at which de Palma shifts from a mildly engaging neo-noir in the L.A. Confidential mode to a shrieking campfest in which the film's actresses seem to be competing for who can go furthest over the top. Oddly, in this context, the usually uncharismatic Hartnett comes off best by keeping things low and brooding, not stretching his limits. Against his quiet competency, an Oscar winner like Hilary Swank (playing a rich bisexual femme fatale who ensares Bleichart) comes off as comically amateurish, while Fiona Shaw seems to be trying to one-up Joan Crawford, and the normally unflappable Johannson, who may look the part, is strangely unsure of herself and utterly unconvincing. Of the actresses, only Mia Kershner, playing Short herself in some film clips discovered posthumously, creates a memorable character, her tear-stained, wounded innocence practically the only clue in the film to explaining Bleichart and Blanchard's obsession with the case.
If de Palma seems to have little idea what to do with his actors, he has even less control over the story, which quickly drops any interest in the central murder case and goes looking for fun in places like a preposterously glam lesbian nightclub where k.d. lang croons "Love for Sale" amid a bevy of sleek, slinky dancers. The de Palma of yesteryear could have conjured some gritty magic out of a place like that, or some of the later confrontational scenes between Bleichart and his accused, but the camerawork is shoddy, the editing patchy, the score generic, and the whole enterprise depressingly devoid of the dark desires that such a story should conjure up.
Ellroy's novel, the first in his "L.A. Quartet" (L.A. Confidential came third) and definitely his finest, placed his characters and the Dahlia case in a dense thicket of historical references and personal demons that made for a heady, pulp-opera brew. By stripping away most of the historical context and character development, the filmmakers laid bare the genre machinations that were always at the root of the book but were previously hidden by the unmatchable lightning energy of Ellroy's prose. It would have been better to have started from scratch.
Don't worry, you're still a million dollar baby to us.